Writing in a fascist prison in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Italian revolutionary and intellectual Antonio Gramsci issued an eloquent warning about the twin dangers of economism and voluntarism. My own work is deeply informed by Gramsci’s challenge: how do we steer a course between the economism that “only one thing is possible” and the voluntarism that “anything is possible” so as to illuminate concrete possibilities for social change?
In grappling with this question, I have paid particular attention to how in-depth ethnographic studies and what I call relational comparisons can do critical work, both analytically and politically. I began my academic career doing battle with economistic and Eurocentric understandings of agrarian change in Java, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Questions of gender and power figure prominently in this work. More recent research is in my native South Africa, where I have traced divergent post-apartheid dynamics in two towns and adjacent townships, and their connections with East Asia. In Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa(University of California Press, 2002) I draw on this work to engage critically with discourses of “globalization,” and explore alternatives to neoliberalism. I have also become increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of journalism, contributing to debates over the future of post-apartheid South Africa in a series of newspaper articles.